Book review

Christianity and Democracy

By Prof. John de Gruchy. Published 1995 by David Philip, Cape Town. ISBN 0-86486-295-4, 291 pages.

Reviewed by Jeanette Harris


In the introduction to his book, Prof. de Gruchy states, "It is essential to try and understand democracy if we are to consider meaningfully it's relationship to Christianity and enter into the debate about the New World Order". Certainly after reading this book one does have a far better idea what it is all about. You will learn that there are different types of democracy, not all of them ideal. The difference between the democratic system and the democratic vision is clearly explained and fundamental to the whole discussion. The author's comment that "Democracy is an open-ended process in constant need of broadening and deepening, and therefore of debate and clarification" was very significant for me, working, as are so many of us in South Africa, through the many issues that affect us daily. Some of these things cause many to feel that our democracy is a failure. This book gives hope for the process of democracy in today's world as well as highlighting the important role Christians can and must play in civil society.


The book is divided into four main parts.

Part 1 The system and the vision

Part 2 Historical and theological connections

Part 3 Churches and the struggle for democracy

Part 4 Critical theological reflection


PART ONE: The system and the vision

Chapter 1 gives insight into various interpretations of democracy. Liberal and socialist viewpoints are examined. Gender, cultural identity, racism and poverty are discussed. The fact that the transition to democracy is only the beginning of a long struggle for social transformation, bringing with it new possibilities for the development of genuinely human life, is emphasized.

Chapter 2 presents and discusses the prophetic vision. The Deuteronomic reforms are central to this. Shalom is explained as "a transformed society in which human beings live together in peace with themselves and in harmony with the whole of creation, and in which the glory of Yahweh is revealed". The final parts of this chapter discuss Jesus and the reign of God, and the Christian Ekklesia.


PART TWO: Historical and theological connections

Chapter 3 is entitled The Christian Matrix and is a journey through church history. The influence and ideologies of Aquinas, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin are examined, along with those of others who played important roles in the development of Christian thinking. Separation of Church and State, the Reformation, Puritanism, the French and American Revolutions are included here. The authors show how there were strong Christian foundations for Civil Rights law in the United States, helping to develop a doctrine of human rights in which individual liberty became the cornerstone of a new political order. By contrast, Europe had "come of age by throwing off the tutelage of God."


Chapter 4, The Polity of Modernity, introduces liberalism, taking examples from England and Europe. The French philosophers agreed that enlightenment meant freedom from the constraints of traditional Christianity through the rediscovery of the ancient classical world. Anticlericalism was rife. The church was identified as the antagonist of modern liberties. 'Liberty, equality and fraternity' were the watchwords. Christian political liberalism and socialism, the churches, Weimar and Nazism are discussed in the rest of this chapter. The author shows how the long history of Christian antipathy towards democracy, beginning with the Enlightenment and the birth of modernity, is drawing to an end.


PART THREE: Churches and the struggle for democracy

Chapters 5,6 and 7 contain case studies that illustrate and analyze the role churches have played in the struggle for democracy post World War Two. Examples used are the USA, Nicaragua, sub-Saharan Africa, the German Democratic Republic and South Africa. They are chosen because they "broadly represent the global context, the varieties of Christian denomination, and the different ways in which the churches have participated in the democratic process". Various civil rights movements are examined. Martin Luther King, Women's rights and prophetic pragmatism, Liberation theology and democracy, are some of the sub-headings chapter 5.

Chapter 6 is entitled 'The post-colonial struggle for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa'. Prof. de Gruchy deals with the problems and difficulties of this era, which include corruption, economic crises, poverty, and gender bias. He explains how the undemocratic colonial rule failed to prepare people for genuine democracy after independence, leading rather to the Africanisation of colonial structures. The details concerning Black African culture and it's particular emphases are helpful to the White African reader in coming to grips with the issues that face us as we seek to build true democracy.

Chapter 7. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the first post-apartheid democratic elections are regarded as epoch-making events at the turn of the century, and symbols of the New World Order. The author traces the role of the Lutheran Church in the German Democratic revolution. For South African readers the section on 'The church and democratic reconstruction in South Africa' will be of special interest. We're given details of the Kairos Document, the Rustenberg and Cape Town Conferences, and the vital role played by many church leaders in the struggle for democracy. Prof. de Gruchy maintains that "without the intervention of church leaders as mediators in many situations of conflict, it is doubtful whether South Africa would have been able to hold it's first democratic elections".

The Christian role in reparation, reconciliation and the ongoing monitoring of the development of a true democracy is shown as vital.


PART FOUR: Critical theological reflection

Chapter 8. This part sums it all up and puts it in perspective for the Christian as an individual and the church as a whole. There is much to grapple with. The author stresses that while democracy is the best option for embodying penultimate expressions of the vision of shalom it is not the kingdom of God. The Christian must continually be working out the relationship between Christian faith and culture.











I found this a fascinating book. The role played by the church in various situations in history runs as a thread throughout every part. I didn't always grasp details on the first reading, because I am not accustomed to reading at this level on a regular basis. There was much to take in and absorb. It gave me hope for our own infant democratic process in South Africa, and left me far better informed than I was before. I was also encouraged in the role I need to play as a responsible Christian in civil society. For theologians this book will be of great interest. For the rest of us it is well worth the effort needed to grasp all the historical facts and concepts. They give such background to our understanding of democracy and of our involvement, as Christians with a Biblical worldview, in it's outworking.

The Big Picture Volume 1 Lent 1999 p.24